Not Your Mother’s Dorm Room: Making Sense of a Place on Campus

Presented by: Rebekah Radtke, Stephanie Sickler

Background Research on place indicates that comfort is directly linked to the amount of perceived control one feels in a space. More importantly, control also gives us the opportunity to limit access to a space, or create privacy (Augustin, 2009; Harris, P. B., Brown, B. B., & Werner, C. M., 1996). For college students living on campus, privacy always comes at a premium. Campus housing can often pair strangers together as roommates, making privacy and self-expression a critical dynamic in small, shared spaces. As an increasing amount of funding and resources is being dedicated to new and refurbished college and university student housing, it is becoming increasingly important to examine how students are adjusting to such spaces. Purpose Personalization of space is a means of self-expression and is one way others can learn about us. The ability to achieve desired levels of comfort in a space can in turn be linked to one’s ability to personalize that space (Altman & Werner, 1985; Augustin, 2009; Kopec, 2006).This presentation compares two case studies conducted at two different state institutions focused on understanding the student experience in campus residential experiences. The purpose of comparing these two case studies was to determine whether students are able to personalize their public and private spaces and how institutional structures encourage or thwart these endeavors. Furthermore, these studies explore the means by which they are achieving these desired levels of comfort and understanding valuable insights gained to connect research to housing personnel. When students have control over a space to the extent that they may personalize it or define a territory, they have the opportunity to achieve comfort in an unfamiliar space. This study seeks to determine the feasibility of students creating comfort in their college and university housing. Methodology The sample groups for this study are two campus residential halls from large, public universities. Questionnaires, surveys, photography of rooms pre- and post-occupancy, and focus groups were a mixed-method approach to understanding how personalization, or lack thereof, of the private and public spaces impact students’ perceptions of the residential experience. To illustrate the findings and compare the studies, a variety of communication techniques will be utilized: -Images through a regression analysis, to diagram how the changes and personalization techniques employed by students fit into a framework for establishing comfort. -Diagramming measures of personalization will graphically explore students’ ability to get comfortable in a space. -Infographics to convey a summary of findings. Implications The results from this study could be used to enhance the campus housing experience for students and for universities looking to understand how the built environment impacts student behavior. When staff and administrators better understand the processes by which students acclimate to their place, they can better prepare themselves and their residents for the changes ahead of them. A clearer definition of what comfort means to residents could lead to improved relations between residents, staff and parents, with the ultimate goal of higher rates of recruitment and retention.


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  • Augustin, S. 2009, Place advantage : applied psychology for interior architecture, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J.
  • Harris, P. B., Brown, B. B., & Werner, C. M. (1996). Privacy regulations and place attachment: Predicting attachments to a student family housing facility. Journal of Environmental Psychology,16, 287-301.
  • Rapoport, A. 1982, The meaning of the built environment : a nonverbal communication approach, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills.
  • Relph, E.C. 1976, Place and placelessness, Pion, London.